The Harvard Business Review’s Podcast “HBR Ideacast” has recently started a series on four business ideas which changed the world.

I already told you about their excellent episode on Disruptive Innovation.

Today I want to highlight another great episode on a topic I learned a lot more about: Taylorism.

What is Taylorism?

In 1878, a machinist at a Pennsylvania steelworks noticed that his crew was producing much less steel than he thought they could. With stopwatches and time-motion studies, Frederick Winslow Taylor ran experiments to find the optimal way to make the most steel with lower labor costs. It was the birth of a management theory, called scientific management or Taylorism.

Essentially, scientific management aims to produce a process which is “perfect”, resulting in the highest amount of efficiency due to the removal of any unnecessary steps or even movement.

Taylor aimed to achieve this my measuring his co-workers with a stopwatch, seeing how long it took them to achieve every step of a process, and then designing a better “flawless” process for them to follow without question in order to achieve as much productive work as possible in the time available. This included even showing workers exactly how to move their bodies to remove “unnecessary movement”.

If you want to have a better understanding of Taylorism’s fascinating history, and how it still affects management principles today, check out the podcast episode here.

In particular, I found two things especially interesting about Taylorism.

Firstly, while Taylorism aims to improve efficiency at any cost, it assumes that the manager designing the process can find the one “perfect” way.

Essentially, people in a decision-making capacity, such as consultants redesigning processes, are the only ones intelligent enough to come up with the correct solution.

The workers are assumed to only be there to follow the rules set out for them, without question.

This is one of the reasons why even when it was first introduced, Taylorism was heavily criticised by the workers it was supposed to help be more efficient. It took away their autonomy and ability to suggest improvements.

This is also one of the key differences between it and other management methods aimed at improving efficiency and effectiveness. The classic other example is Lean Manufacturing spearheaded by companies like Toyota with their Toyota Management System.

While the Toyota system also aims to remove waste in the system, every employee in their production system is actively encouraged to report any issues with the system so that it can be improved. This means that any single worker can shut down the entire assembly line in a Toyota factory, no matter their seniority or level. This would be unthinkable in Taylorism, and one of the reasons why Taylorism actually will discourage innovation.

Yes, by having consultants produce a perfect process once, you may gain efficiency in the short term. But by removing the ability for people to question the status quo and suggest improvements, you will slow down or even stop further progress in the future.

The second thing which struck me is how many employees and companies are still affected by the principles of Taylorism today.

In some jobs which are run based on achieving maximum throughput of work per employee, like call centre staff, research shows that many of these employees have extremely strict guidelines and rules they need to abide by. Everything from:

  • Quotas of how many calls to process per hour
  • The exact script to use for any situation
  • How often and when they are allowed to take breaks or go to the bathroom

Other jobs go even a step further in removing an employees ability to make decisions and completely dictate what they should be doing. This is especially true in the “gig economy”, where if you are an Uber driver, the app will show you exactly the route to drive.

Yes, efficiency is important, especially when companies grow and want to improve profitability.

But if all you think about is removing inefficiency, you will also be less likely to invest in new innovative ideas, which might be much less efficient to start with, but allow you to grow in new directions.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.